Part I - From Egypt to Sinai
Parashat Beshalach bridges the two seminal events of Sefer Shemot: the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah. However, when God first appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, He spoke of Bnei Yisrael's direct journey to Sinai (3:12) and then to Eretz Yisrael (3:8, 17). But our Parasha describes a journey far from direct. Before Bnei Yisrael reach Sinai, they: 1) confront the Egyptian army at Yam Suf, 2) face a water crisis at Marah, where they could find only bitter water, 3) run out of food in the desert, requiring the miracle of the "mann", 4) experience another drought in Refidim, and 5) face Amalek's unprovoked attack. Why must all this occur before Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah at Sinai?
After centuries of bondage, Bnei Yisrael had developed a sense of absolute dependence on Egypt. Yechezkel (20) speaks of God's command that the people abandon their worship of Egyptian idolatry in order to earn redemption, an order neglected by Bnei Yisrael. Although the Paschal offering granted them redemption, their servility to Egyptian culture must transform into their unwavering subservience to God before they come to Sinai to accept the responsibilities of God's special nation.
The events of Parashat Beshalach help achieve this critical goal. As the nation stood at the shores of the Red Sea, God tells them, "Stand and behold the salvation of God, for the manner in which you saw Egypt today, you will never see them again." As Ramban explains, the splitting of the sea stripped Bnei Yisrael of their slave mentality, by which they viewed the Egyptians as their masters. God orders the people to never again look upon their former oppressors in this light. Indeed, after the sea splits, we are told, "they believed in God and in Moshe." They then arrived in Marah, where the bitter waters became drinkable through Moshe - God's agent. Appropriately, here Moshe tells the nation, "If you listen to the voice of Hashem… all the afflictions that I put on the Egyptians I will not put on you…"
In the next encampment, however, it appears as though Bnei Yisrael have yet to learn this lesson. They respond to their food shortage not by praying to God, but by yearning for the "good old days" in Egypt when they had food to eat (16:3). The trauma of Yam Suf and Marah did not suffice; this recognition required an extended period of constant reinforcement. God therefore provided Bnei Yisrael with "manna", giving them only one day's ration at a time, developing within them a sense of total dependence upon Him.
One final phase of preparation remained before Bnei Yisrael could gather round Mount Sinai for the Revelation. They once again encounter a serious water crisis, only this time the solution comes from Mount Sinai. God bids Moshe to take the nation's elders to "Chorev" (= Sinai) and smite a rock that would then produce water. On the brink of the Revelation, Bnei Yisrael are shown that their basic sustenance comes from Sinai - the Torah. Similarly, as they battle Amalek, Moshe ascends "the peak" (17:9), which Ibn Ezra understands as a reference to Mount Sinai. Whenever Moshe lifted his hands, thereby directing the people's thoughts upward (17:11 & Rashi), Bnei Yisrael defeated their assailants. Once again, Bnei Yisrael find themselves in a crisis whose solution comes from Mount Sinai, thus furthering their sense of dependence on God and His word.
We commemorate this growth process between the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah through the "sefirat ha'omer" period. After we celebrate the Exodus on Pesach, we, like Bnei Yisrael, embark on a seven-week program of preparation for Matan Torah, the next fundamental stage of redemption.
Part II - The Eternal Battle Against Amalek
Parashat Beshalach concludes with Amalek's attack of Bnei Yisrael and God's oath of an eternal war against the aggressors. What's so bad about Amalek that warrants their singling out from all our enemies throughout history?
In the end of Parashat Ki-Tetze, Moshe bids Bnei Yisrael to always remember Amalek's attack (Dvarim 25:17-18). He stresses several characteristics of this assault: Bnei Yisrael were on the road, Amalek attacked specifically those lagging behind, Bnei Yisrael were tired and weary, and Amalek was not "God-fearing." To better understand Moshe's account, let us consider the background of this war. The previous verses tell of Bnei Yisrael's water shortage and Moshe's hitting of a rock on Mount Chorev, also known as Sinai, to produce water. Using some simple conjecture, we can imagine that as soon as word got out about the river flowing from Sinai, the people, who had gone several days without water in the desert, frantically picked themselves up and headed there. The stronger, healthier ones made it there first, while the weak and frail straggled behind. Bnei Yisrael, particularly those lagging behind, were thirsty, weak, tired, frantic, frazzled, and in utter disarray. Amalek capitalized on this handicap and launched an attack. This is why the verse writes, "Amalek came and battled against Yisrael in Refidim." Amalek assaulted specifically those who still remained in Refidim; the stronger members of Bnei Yisrael had already made their way towards Sinai.
Hence Moshe's observation that Amalek "was not God-fearing." In at least two instances, the concept of "yirat Elokim" - fear of God - appears in the context of basic, elementary ethics and morals. For example, Avaraham explained the need for Sarah's disguise as his sister in Grar based on the lack of "yirat Elokim" in that city (Breishit 20:11). He therefore feared that the locals would kill him to take his wife. Similarly, Yosef told his brothers that he would release them from prison because he is God-fearing (Breishit 42:15). The nation of Amalek lacked even the most basic standards of ethics. Even wartime has its rules and regulations (a "Geneva Convention" of sorts). Attacking a nation's weakest segment en route to collect long-awaited drinking water constituted a breach of the most rudimentary guidelines of moral conduct.
Therefore, Bnei Yisrael, who carry Avraham's legacy of "tzdaka u'mishpat" (righteousness and justice - Breishit 18:19), must lead the eternal battle against Amalek and its ideological successors.